Even when our planet finds itself in trouble, Earthlings can count on the rest of the solar system to serve up solace. This month, that cosmic care package comes in the form of the Lyrid meteor shower—a dazzling display of debris left behind by a comet called C/1861 G1 Thatcher.
This year, the Lyrids will be visible from about April 16 to April 30, peaking in visibility on the evenings of April 21 and 22, when those with the best views can expect to see about 10 to 15 meteors zipping by each hour. The annual event is one of the oldest meteor showers ever documented, with records going as far back at 687 B.C., NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke tells Jesse Emspak at Space.com.
The Lyrids are a bit more muted than big banner meteor showers like the Perseids, an infamously bright and plentiful meteor shower that usually peaks in August. But gazing into the night sky over the next couple weeks will likely still give viewers a pretty spectacular show.
All meteor showers occur when Earth passes through the dusty trails left behind by comets—fast-moving balls of ice and rock that shed gas and bits of solid schmutz as they careen throughout the cosmos. The comet culprit behind the Lyrids, C/1861 G1 Thatcher, takes 415 years to orbit the sun, but our planet collides with the crumbs in its path once every year. When little pieces of Thatcher slam into our atmosphere at speeds of up to 110,000 miles per hour, they start to burn up, blazing through the skies in fiery streaks.
What this sky show lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. In previous years, the Lyrids have showcase the brightest breed of meteor, which are literally called fireballs, Marcus Schneck reports for Syracuse.com. (On rare occasions, the Lyrids have been known to undergo a surge, pelting the planet with up to 100 meteors per hour—but these instances are very tough to predict, according to Michelle Debczak at Mental Floss.)
Weather permitting, viewing conditions are also likely to be good, as the moon will still be early in its cycle, and won’t be backlighting the show, according to Space.com. The Lyrids will be most visible in the northern hemisphere, and most striking between midnight and dawn.
For an especially good shot of the action, NASA recommends turning your gaze toward (but not directly at) the constellation Lyra, which contains Vega, one of the brightest stars in the sky. Called the radiant of the meteor shower, Lyra is the point from which the meteors appear to originate, and also gives the light show its name. (No need for a telescope or binoculars; you'll want to maximize the amount of sky you see to get the full glory of the light show. Like most meteor showers, your backyard is a perfectly good place to watch from.)
With businesses and gathering places shuttered and many holing up at home, levels of light and air pollution have taken a slight dip, potentially leaving the skies especially clear, according to Mental Floss. With so many upcoming performances cancelled, perhaps there's some comfort in the fact that, out in the vastness of space, the show always goes on.